Friday, November 13, 2015

The King of Sciences

Physics is the most magical of the sciences. If chemistry is the science of creation, and biology that of transformation, then physics is the wondrous confounding science of interaction. Physics describes how everything relates to everything else, starting at the subatomic level. From there comes chemistry. From chemistry, biology. Physics is the root of it all.

This strange music of the spheres is not simple. The concepts seem obvious: drop a ball and it falls. Push a box and it slides across the floor. These are measurably predictable actions. The magic of physics comes with identifying that which is not intuitive and taming it with numbers and symbols. An entire mathematical language, calculus, had to be discovered in order to explore the seemingly basic concepts of action and reaction, push and pull. What we know when we first stand – the pull of the earth on our bones – is only half the story. Physics uses numbers to tell how we pull on the Earth, how the ball gives energy to the ground, how the box pushes back.

Physics is the science of the parted curtain, of seeing into the darkness beyond and understanding what strangeness lies in the unknown. To be a physicist takes creativity. It takes, I believe, a little bit of madness to walk the fine line between this world and some other that exactly overlays our own. I imagine the physicist’s world to be filled with lights and arrows, but that is a writer’s conceit. I am not a seer. 

Still, I try. Being a student is a humbling experience. Each class spreads a map of the vastness of ignorance, and lays a tiny guideline to the next waypoint. Mine is generally a joyful journey of discovery; I am delighted by just how much there is to learn. This semester has been more difficult. Numbers and formulae have floated before me like balloons. I have desperately attempted to tie them to the concepts which we are discussing, but they are slippery and transform. Most agonizing is the sense that I _almost_ get it. I know how something is going to work, but am unable to connect the language, the trigonometry, to the action.

Last week a combination of particularly difficult homework and a baffling lecture brought me to my knees. Between classes I hid in a bathroom stall and wiped away tears. Afterward I slumped to the lab, completely dispirited and wondering how I could ever teach this material to students when I can’t do it myself. My benchmate, who is in the same lecture section, griped with me as we did the performing-monkey part of setting up the experiment. We settled down to the routine of measure, test, record, measure, test, record. Then our third partner came in and asked me to explain what we were doing. 

They say teaching is the best way to learn. I outlined the basics of what steps we were taking, then showed her the diagram of the numbers we were collecting. After attempting three different explanations relating events to numbers, we achieved the a-ha! moment. You are a good teacher, she told me. I hope so, I replied.

In that moment of grace I was reminded that not everything can be explained by science. There is always hope.

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